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Chester Dale

Chester Dale
George Bellows, Portrait of Chester Dale, 1922. National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection, 1944.16.1.
Chester Dale (1883–1962) was born in New York City. He began his career as a runner at the New York Stock Exchange when he was fifteen, but made his fortune in the bond market, ultimately counting railroad assets as well as utilities and municipal bonds in the United States and Canada among his considerable portfolio. When he was twenty-seven, he married Maud Murray (1876–1953), who introduced him to the collecting of modern art. Dale thrived on forging financial deals and translated much of this energy and talent into building his art collection.From Impressionism To Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection,” National Gallery of Art, (accessed August 15, 2017). The narrative that follows relies on this press release for the special exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, which was held from January 31, 2010, to January 2, 2012. By 1925, his wife had begun to steer Dale toward French art, urging him to concentrate his collecting from the time of the Revolution to the present, together with earlier artists whom she called “ancestors.” They purchased many works on regular trips to Europe after the First World War; Dale often commented that he had the inquisitiveness and Maud had the knowledge.

Dale continued to acquire art in the early years of the Great Depression, adding important French and American paintings to his already considerable collection. Learning of Andrew Mellon’s plan to create the National Gallery of Art, Dale wanted his collection to be a part of it. In 1941, he lent seven American paintings for the dedication of the gallery and later in the year added twenty-five of his most important French paintings, which he selected to illustrate the development of French art. Dale made his first permanent gift to the gallery—three Old Master paintings—in 1942. This was followed by two substantial gifts in 1943, one comprising eight American canvases, the other, eleven Old Master paintings. Dale donated an additional fourteen works to the gallery during his lifetime, including three paintings by Bellows and the first work by Monet to enter the museum’s collection. He also served, from 1955 until his death in 1962, as president of the National Gallery.

During its first two decades, the gallery had studiously avoided acquiring and exhibiting modern art. Modernist art had become linked to anti-government sentiment, and National Gallery director John Walker (1906–1995) had thought it too risky to exhibit modern art at the gallery: “our support in the Senate and the House might have been jeopardized had we shown avant-garde work.”Neil Harris, Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 50. Walker was not doctrinally opposed to modern art, and indeed collected it himself; he was merely afraid of the consequences of including it at the National Gallery. However, with the arrival of J. Carter Brown (1934–2002) in 1961 as assistant to the director (he would later server as director between 1969 and 1992), the gallery became more receptive to modernist artworks. Upon his death in 1962, Chester Dale bequeathed the core of his modern art collection, comprising two hundred and twenty-three paintings, seven sculptures, and twenty-three works on paper, one of the single most valuable gifts given to the National Gallery. His estate subsequently donated another seventeen works, bringing the total number of works in the Chester Dale Collection at the gallery to three hundred and six. A stipulation of the bequest prohibits the National Gallery from lending from the Dale Collection.

As a result of Dale’s gift, the gallery's collection of French paintings represented virtually every major artist who worked in France from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s and was described by director John Walker as “not just the backbone” but “the whole rib structure of the modern French school here.” New York Times art critic John Canaday, on the occasion of the National Gallery’s twenty-fifth anniversary in 1966, described the changed (and charged) atmosphere in the gallery brought about by the Chester Dale bequest: “The Dale collection . . . has thrown the whole National Gallery out of kilter, and a good thing it is too. The place has had too much kilter and too little accent.”John Canaday, “Twenty-five and All of a Sudden Breathing,” New York Times (March 20, 1966), (accessed August 2, 2017).

Profile by Noah Houghton, 2017 summer intern.